With a litany of complex problems to address in the wake of Gadhafi’s ouster, NATO’s self-congratulation is premature.
The NATO military engagement in Libya ended on Oct. 31, amid great celebration in participating capitals and much favourable commentary in the popular media.
Is this warranted?
Objections to the lack of public debate, NATO’s tendency to reach for the gun before exhausting all alternatives to the use of armed force, the ambitious pursuit of goals well beyond those authorized by the UN Security Council, and the near complete incoherence of western policy in the region seem well-founded. Quite apart from the unknown number of people killed during the rebellion, respect for international law, and for the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, has been among the more notable casualties.
The broader concern is that, for NATO participants, policy has become, in large part, an instrument of war. That relationship should be reversed, but with the continuing dominance of Global War on Terror thinking and the resulting (mis)allocation of international policy resources, civilian decision-making has consistently favoured the use of hard power instruments. But that, and a host of other issues, remains unaddressed. With former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s execution, these kinds of considerations have by and large been lost in the orgy of triumphalism and self-congratulation.
It may be that western military intervention in support of one side in a civil war was the best choice among a limited selection of bad options to avert a possible massacre in Benghazi. Perhaps a new Libya, launched down a path of democracy, security, prosperity, and respect for human rights, is set to become a model. I hope that is the case. But most of those attributes are without antecedent in Libya. I can’t shake the feeling that it is still way too soon to break out the champagne.
Deprived of a common enemy, the various factions within the ruling Transitional National Council (TNC) now have little to keep them united. Inevitable differences will arise over the distribution of power and the dispensing of patronage, not to mention the division of the spoils. These issues will be exacerbated by Libya’s long history of regional, ethnic, and tribal divisions. Tensions of this nature will be challenging to contain and manage.
With the uncontrolled pillaging of Gadhafi’s armouries, the country is awash with weapons of all description, and untrained militias roam the streets. Some will be keen to settle accounts, and will seek revenge through reprisals. All of this will be difficult to control and roll back.
The received wisdom notwithstanding, the Gadhafi who, for a while, became the toast of the town when he changed foreign-policy direction, settled with the Lockerbie bombing victims, renounced support for terrorism, and terminated his efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, was not universally reviled within his country. Although his erratic, eccentric, and sometimes brutal behaviour made it easy to slot him as a cartoon cutout – the very caricature of a loony despot – by comparative measure, he was not particularly corrupt, and actually had some demonstrable achievements to his credit.
Gadhafi worked hard for African unity and financial independence. He invested oil revenues in support of national needs, and spent substantially on domestic infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, and roads. Development indicators, such as literacy and infant-mortality rates, were the best in the region, and this may account for the fact that Libya topped all other African countries in the UN’s Human Development Index.
Much of this legacy will have been lost in the seven months of NATO bombardment, which may help explain why not all of Africa is celebrating.
With the end of the NATO mission, the centre of the international action will shift to trade and investment promotion, and to competition for lucrative resource and reconstruction contracts. Yet, driven by the relentless pressures of the 24/7 news cycle and popular preferences for infotainment, the legions of journalists who covered the fall of Sirte have mainly moved on. As a result, in the aftermath of the conflict – and short of a resumption of full-blown hostilities – over the coming months we are unlikely to hear all that much about NATO’s new protectorate, or its proxies in the TNC.
That is unfortunate, for, in the case of the latest exercise of western military intervention, the proof will be in the pudding.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.